Surely, it’s an important topic. It’s an important moment in a friendship.
What do you do, Elizabeth Bernstein asks, when a friend confides that he or she is having marital problems?
I have hesitated to write about this for a simple reason. In many cases it depends on whether you are male or female and whether your friend is male or female. When a woman confides in a female friend, it's not the same as talking to a male friend. All of it is different from what happens when a man confides in a male friend or when a male confides in a female friend.
Portraying these interactions in gender neutral terms muddles the issues.
Anyway, Bernstein poses the question:
Sooner or later, someone in the depths of a marital or relationship problem will want to talk about what’s going on and possibly to ask for advice. Being there for that person—a family member, a friend or even a work colleague—is challenging. No one teaches us how to give emotional support.
When someone we care about confides in us, a common instinct is to make this person feel better at all costs. We may offer false hope or criticize the spouse or partner, and if we are close to this person, their distress may become our distress. But these reactions aren’t helpful.
This assumes that we are being asked to give emotional support. At times, we are. In many cases we are being asked for something else.
Whenever you find yourself in that situation, expert William Doherty recommends that you be a friend, not a therapist.
One agrees wholly.
One does not exactly know what is meant by the terms, but perhaps that sounds like caviling.
Some people want their friends to feel their pain. They do not want to be alone with their anguish. Some people want to hear a more objective perspective about the situation. Some people want to talk it out because talking, like writing is a distancing process. They want to know whether they are missing something or doing something wrong. At times, they suspect something that they cannot quite articulate or are afraid to see.
A friend knows the difference and offers the right kind of guidance.
Bernstein reports Doherty’s view:
In his research, Dr. Doherty found people who confide in a friend say it is most helpful if the friend simply listens. Confidants also can help by giving emotional support and helping the confider put the situation in perspective. They often can help a person understand his or her contribution to the problem or where the spouse is coming from.
Confidants can make mistakes. They say judgmental things or talk too much about themselves. They take sides. They try to fix the problem. “Don’t confuse being a confidant with being an advice giver,” Dr. Doherty warns.
It is fair to say that therapists sometimes make mistakes too.
Again, it depends on context and on the nature of the friendship.
Doherty suggests that confidants should not give advice, but a confidant, not a therapist, has the better, more close up view of the situation. The confidant might have seen the couple interact in different social situations over a considerable time period.
A confidant might feel that it is none of his business to point out obvious problems, but, when a couple is in crisis he might need to offer an opinion, the better to steer the situation in a more constructive direction.
Most confidants do their best not to get involved, but a true friend will take sides. To suggest otherwise is an error. If a friend’s marriage is in trouble, he or she might need to know his friends will be loyal to him. Not taking sides will feel like a betrayal.
Loyalty is the definition of friendship.
At times it might be helpful to tell someone that he is having a problem because he is acting like a clod. It might be helpful to tell him that he has done nothing wrong.
Since Doherty is a mental health professional, he will at some point suggest that your friend, whose marriage is crumbling around him or her needs empathy.
As we know, therapists believe that empathy can solve all problems. It’s like Tiger Balm for the soul.
As it happens, they are wrong. Sometimes it helps to be able to commiserate. It is especially helpful when commiseration feels like a sign of loyalty. At other times, empathy is bad medicine.
In Bernstein’s words:
Try to empathize with the person’s pain, not the details of their story. Reflect the person’s feelings back (“I can see how hurt you were when you felt put down by your wife in front of your friends”). Nonverbal communication—a look, a touch—goes a long way.
Such might be the case where your friend is mourning a relative who just died. In that context sympathy is appropriate. Nothing can be done so you feel the person’s pain.
And that is the point about someone who is in mourning. You offer emotional support because you can do nothing to bring the deceased back.
But, if all you can offer is empathy or sympathy you are signaling that the situation is hopeless, that nothing can be done.
If your friend’s marriage is on the line, you should not act as though it is dead. If you do you will be telling your friend that it’s over, there’s nothing more to do. You will be facilitating its demise.
In some circumstances, not hard to imagine, someone might be talking to you in order to gain some distance and some objective perspective about his or her situation. In that case, the details of the story matter and your friend might need to talk about some of them.
On the other hand, revealing too many intimate and personal details might be embarrassing for your friend. And since your job is to support your friend’s morale, details that show him or her at his or her worst will not help him out.
Drawing the line is not easy.
In Bernstein's example a man's wife put him down (or appeared to do so) in front of friends.
She recommends an empathetic response, to the effect that you should feel your friend’s pain.
In the first place, if the man who was thus humiliated merely feels hurt he is doing something wrong. He should feel anger toward his wife and he should be questioning both her character and her commitment to the marriage.
If your friend is too angry, he might be trying to figure out how to avenge the insult. Before he resorts to drastic measures, he should ask himself whether it was an accident or intentional, whether she has done it before, whether she apologized, either to him or in front of the group, or whether she believes that she did anything wrong.
You cannot really tell him what to do, but you can help him to get a handle on the situation and to evaluate his options. To do so you need to help him to take a step back from what happened, even if that means helping him to get his mind off of it.
For what it’s worth, putting down your spouse in front of other people is one of the most egregious errors you can make. The damage is not going to be repaired by whining about your hurt feelings. If you whine, you will be suggesting that you deserved to be put down.
Of course, that is an extreme case. In less extreme cases marital conflicts and difficulties require negotiation. They will require compromise, and compromise involves work, not a warm bath of empathy.
Clearly, a professional will be in the best position to help a spouse find a way to negotiate a compromise. A friend, less so.
And yet, a friend will probably know more about the situation than will even the best therapist. A friend might not be able to help negotiate a compromise, but he should certainly point things in that direction… rather than feeling his friend’s pain.
A good friend can also help in judging the effectiveness of any therapeutic intervention. Not all therapists are very adept at cobbling out a compromise.